Our skies never safer, but fear of flying persists

By Jayson Jacoby January 18, 2013 09:24 am

Statistically speaking, being afraid to fly on a commercial airliner has never been a rational reaction.

That cloying cliché — “you’re more likely to die in a car wreck while driving to the airport than in a plane crash” — happens to be true.

And today it’s even more true.

Last year was the safest for commercial aviation since 1945, when record-keeping began.

Flying is especially safe in the United States and other developed nations, where deadly crashes are as uncommon as cellular phones with retractable antennas and new cars with roll up windows.

Even during the infancy of the jet age, when engineers and pilots and air traffic controllers and airport designers struggled with the immense difficulties of dealing with planes that carried so many more people, at such higher speeds, than the piston-engined planes of the past, crashes were rare.

But when the big jets did go down, hundreds of lives could be lost in, almost literally, an instant. The inevitable torrent of publicity that followed each crash was guaranteed to contribute to the aura of dread and black humor associated with traveling by air.

This anxiety is understandable, of course, even if it’s not altogether rational.

Despite the indisputable data regarding car crashes, people feel that, when they’re driving, they are at least in control of their fate.

Besides which, driving a car is, for most people, an activity so common as to be routine, and the routine, unless you’re, say, a soldier, rarely is frightening.

Flying, by contrast, is for most of us an unusual, even glamorous, event. Few of us are pilots, so there’s an element of mystery to the endeavor that breeds distrust and, for some, fear.

Specifically, the notion of being belted inside an aluminum tube, utterly helpless while hurtling toward the ground at 600 mph, fosters a level of horror that a highway collision, no matter that it’s much more likely, simply can’t match.

That such disasters have nearly been eliminated from the major U.S. airlines over the past decade or so seems to me high on the list of technological achievements in human history.

From 1962 to 1971, a period that included the launching of the Boeing 747, the first “jumbo” jet, the death rate for airlines in this country was 133 out of every 100 million passengers.

Pretty good odds, those.

The rate for the last 10 years: 2 of 100 million.

During that span, four years passed when not a single passenger died.

This amazes me.

That airlines can haul 700 million passengers per year and not lose a single one of them (insert luggage joke here), despite operating in all weathers and with machines that, for all their immense complexity, can be brought down by a flock of geese or a wind gust invisible to the most sophisticated radar, strikes me in fact as very nearly miraculous.

I remember, while growing up during the 1970s and ’80s, that no year passed without an awful crash happening somewhere in the U.S., with its attendant death toll measured in the dozens or hundreds.

It is, I think, testament to the persistent power of irrational fears that although the last tragedy on that scale happened here more than 11 years ago — American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed just after takeoff in New York on Nov. 12, 2001, killing all 260 aboard and five people on the ground — the “person who hates to fly” remains a popular character in our culture.

It’s been almost that long since I last flew on a jet — at the end of December 2001, from Boise to Phoenix to watch the Oregon Ducks beat the Colorado Buffaloes in the Fiesta Bowl.

But I had occasion to ponder the matter this past weekend when my older daughter, Rheann, flew from Boise to Seattle to visit a friend.

And although I’m as powerless as any parent to be completely sanguine when it comes to the safety of a child, the only nagging worry I had while Rheann was gone was that she might be accosted by some creep in downtown Seattle.

That she was flying was, if anything, a relief. Better that, I figured, than her driving across Snoqualmie Pass during a cold snap.


Bill Ward, one of Baker’s inveterate watchers of wildlife, sent me an interesting email the other day.

He had seen a robin perched in his cherry tree on New Year’s Day.

“I had to take a picture of it to prove it was here this early in January,” Bill wrote. “I don’t know if it doesn’t have a calendar or global warming is responsible, but I do know it is earlier than we have ever seen a robin in my yard.”

I can’t answer Bill’s question.

But I too have seen a robin — several of them, in fact — in my yard this winter.

Which is nothing compared to what’s going on at my office.

The crabapple trees that border the Herald’s parking lot — specifically, the north side of Court Street between First and Second — are absolutely lousy with robins.

Their presence, though pleasant if you’re an avian aficionado, is rather less so for my unfortunate colleagues whose parking spaces are next to the trees.

The robins, after gorging themselves on the desiccated fruits, must, of biological and aeronautical necessity, rid themselves of excess ballast.

And the inconsiderable birds are ridding themselves all over hoods and fenders.

Which is unpleasant in any season.

But it’s especially troublesome during this chilliest January in more than 20 years.

Who among us is willing to head out to the driveway, clutching a bucket of sudsy water in one hand and a sponge in the other?

Although you might be able to sell your story to one of the medical journals.

Hypothermia tests can be fascinating.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.